The seemingly irreconcilable conflict over the debt ceiling has the potential to burn down the nation's economic house — and, with it, the political house as well.
Let me backtrack a bit.
There just wasn't anything good about last week's jobs report. It was bad news across the board. For all incumbents. No matter on which side of the fence you may stand.
It's probably worse for Democrats right now since they hold the White House and the Senate. Republicans hold only the House, but there is no reason for them to feel smug, either. And that certainly doesn't mean that House Democrats or Senate Republicans are immune (although a case could be made for Senate Republicans).
No incumbent can assume that he/she is safe because the incumbents are responsible for making the system work — and it ain't working.
Unemployment went up for the third straight month. Many economists had been anticipating at least a modest rebound for the American economy, with fuel prices easing and all that.
But I guess I should have known something wicked this way came because gas prices around here have been going up lately. (I don't know what they've been like where you live, but I paid about $3.38/gallon a couple of weeks ago at the station down the street and today, the price at that very same station is $3.59/gallon.)
And then came what I have often heard described as a bucket of cold water on the recovery — the unemployment rate is the highest it has been since last September.
My friends who support Barack Obama don't like to hear this because it contradicts their cozy view of the world — but his Republican opponent in 2012 is going to be much less important than his record in office — and that record is not too great right now.
Oh, they like to remind me that George W. Bush was president when the economy went south, and they like to recite Obama's legislative achievements, but the bottom line is that fingerpointing and a list doesn't put food on the table or keep a roof over your head.
They like to tsk, tsk among themselves and shake their heads disapprovingly over the possibility of facing an extremist like Michele Bachmann or Newt Gingrich or Sarah Palin in the general election because they think the choice is obvious if that comes to pass. In fact, as far as they are concerned, it isn't a choice at all — so they keep talking about those rivals because they are certain that those candidates are not electable.
And they'd like to see one of them win the GOP nomination. Then, as they see it, the election will become a slam dunk for Obama.
But it isn't going to be that simple.
Oh, I expect the Republicans to nominate someone who is more conservative than Obama. That's a given. The Republicans are the conservatives in our political universe, the Democrats are the liberals. And, in today's Democrat Party, anyone to the right of Nancy Pelosi is considered suspect.
It's no better on the Republican side, where anyone to the left of John Boehner tends to be regarded as a RINO.
That leaves an incredibly large bloc of politically homeless Americans in the middle who are being stretched too thin by two polarized parties, and I think more Americans may well be receptive to the idea of a third party or an independent candidate than they have been for a couple of decades.
Unless an insurgent candidate pops up to challenge Obama for the nomination, we already know who will be nominated by the Democrats. I doubt that the Republicans will nominate an extremist, but, contrary to all the discussions I hear, I also doubt that it will matter.
The dynamics of a race that features an incumbent are entirely different from the dynamics of a race that has no incumbent on the ballot. Obama won a non–incumbent race in 2008. Now, he must win a different kind of race. Historically, the rules for such a race are crystal clear.
If the incumbent is meeting or exceeding expectations, like Ronald Reagan in 1984 or Bill Clinton in 1996, he will win, possibly in a landslide. If not (see the gentlemen who were replaced by Reagan and Clinton four years earlier — when many disaffected Americans opted for an independent candidate rather than either of the major–party nominees), he will be defeated, again possibly in a landslide.
What will matter is what conditions are like when the voters go to the polls — and we can't know, in July 2011, what those conditions will be in November 2012.
No, sir, voters are not fortune tellers, and they can be fickle. What they like today they may very well dislike tomorrow — and vice versa — but they do have an idea which way the wind is blowing right now — and it isn't at their backs.
Relentlessly high unemployment has dragged consumer confidence to its lowest level in three years, writes Vicki Needham in The Hill — and who knows where consumer confidence will be on Election Day?
I do know that the electorate has been impatient lately. How could the incumbents possibly have missed that fact? In House elections, where the volatility has been more pronounced, one party has taken at least 20 seats from the other in the last three elections.
Is that significant? You tell me. Prior to 2006, it was extremely rare for either party to take as many as 10 seats from the other in a single election. If a double–digit movement did occur, it was considered a shift of seismic proportions. In the last three elections, more than 100 House seats have flipped from one party to the other.
Here's something else: The first of July has come and gone with no one, to my knowledge, observing that it was the second anniversary of the date when the recession was said to have ended.
Two years of "recovery" have brought zero net movement in the unemployment rate — yet Obama's top political adviser is deep in denial, insisting that Americans won't care about the jobless rate when they go to the polls.
Nonsense. It's the only issue many voters do care about.